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Sony plans to ride out economic slump

The company's PC and consumer electronics division will release a slew of new products to try to maintain its double-digit growth in the United States.

SAN FRANCISCO--Despite the economic slump, Sony Electronics will try to maintain its double-digit growth in the United States this year by releasing a slew of new products.

Fujio Nishida, president of Sony Electronics, said Tuesday that revenue within Sony's computer and consumer electronics division grew by about 15 percent in the United States during the fiscal year that ended Saturday. Official financial results come out later this month.

Sales of luxury items such as big-screen TVs have suffered amid the U.S. economic downturn, he told reporters at a press conference here. But overall, he said, Sony has remained insulated from the shockwave of the slowdown. He attributed it to Sony's emphasis on design.

"Sony's strength is in product differentiation, so we are maybe the least affected company in this environment. This year we are looking at double-digit growth again," he said, adding that "of course, it is lower double-digit growth."

To keep the juggernaut rolling, Sony will be rapidly releasing products such as a new handheld computer, high-definition TVs and an Internet-surfing appliance.

The company, for instance, will soon launch a new, and likely cheaper, version of the Clie, its handheld that runs on the Palm operating system.

The first version of the Clie "didn't have color and was a little pricey," Nishida acknowledged. "This year we are bringing out a better product."

In addition, Sony will begin to market modules for the Clie's Memory Stick port. Like modules for Handspring's Springboard expansion slot, the Sony modules will turn the Clie into a Global Positioning System or a digital camera.

Sony and GoAmerica will also develop a "unique" wireless service for the Clie, he said.

As for the living room, three new high-definition TVs will hit the market, including one with a 65-inch screen. A combination DVD/high-fidelity CD player will come out in July. In addition, the company plans to put a greater emphasis on music downloading and subscription services.

Also on the road map are the delayed eVilla, which is a Web-surfing appliance for the home, and the Airboard, a portable TV that can also be used to surf the Web.

Most Internet-surfing appliances have fared poorly in the market so far. But Nishida asserts that Sony has a better chance of succeeding because of its design history.

"Those people (who tried this earlier) all came from the computer business," he said. Sony's display group has designed the eVilla.

Although Sony has managed so far to bypass the economic downturn, the new, harsher environment will affect some of the company's product plans. Last year, Sony executives predicted that fiber-optic broadband networks in the home would become fairly ubiquitous by 2003.